The upward trend in auction prices continued in 2019 with the Jack B Yeats, Paul Henry, and William Scott monopolising the highest prices, and some of our living artists achieving their best ever results. According to Ian Whyte, 2019 was Whyte’s best year since the halcyon days of 2007. The outstanding Ernie O’Malley collection with its treasure trove of Jack B Yeats paintings was presumably a major factor here. Arabella Bishop, head of Sotheby’s Ireland, also reported a good year and was optimistic for the future: ‘Our Irish Art sale in 2019 achieved the highest result since our re-introduction of a dedicated Irish Art sale in 2015. We are seeing a growing demand among collectors, many of those new to the market, nationally and internationally, and we expect this trend to continue in 2020.We are seeing clients increasingly more willing to put good quality works on market.’
Overall, 2019 was dominated by Yeats with seven of the top ten prices at Irish auction houses and eight of the top ten in the UK going to paintings by our greatest artist.
Overall, 2019 was dominated by Yeats with seven of the top ten prices at Irish auction houses and eight of the top ten in the UK going to paintings by our greatest artist. The highest price at auction in 2019 was the €1,4000,000 paid for Reverie by Yeats, followed by €1,300,000 for Evening in Spring, also by Yeats – both sold at Whyte’s (in association with Christie’s). These were the fourth and fifth highest prices ever achieved by Yeats and you have to go back twenty years to find any comparable prices. It’s quite a jump to the next highest price in 2019, and again it’s by Yeats; A Paris of the West sold at Sotheby’s in November for £550,000. The highest price paid for Paul Henry in 2019 was the €185,000 for Evening in Achill at Morgan O’Driscoll. Sotheby’s and Adam’s also sold a number of Henry’s for six figure sums. William Scott also enjoyed another good year. White with Black Predominating sold at Sotheby’s in November for £220,000 and Blue, White and Yellow yielded £190,000 at Christie’s in October. RTÉ parted with a substantial William Scott as part of its fund-raising efforts. Abstract Painting went under the hammer at Sotheby’s for £150,000.
There were rich pickings to be had from the Antoinette and Patrick J Murphy collection at auction in Adam’s in October. Its listings were a roll call of most of the significant Irish artists of the past 100 years – including most of our important female artists. They had a number of particularly fine works by Mary Swanzy – an artist whom Pat Murphy did much to promote. While she never came close to her auction record of €180,000 (for Cubist Landscape with Red Pagoda and Bridge in 2006), she did achieve some substantial prices. The best of these was the €90,000 for her cubist masterpiece The White Tower. A striking piece by the indomitable Camille Souter also did well. Her Slaughtered Cow Ten Minutes Dead was not for the faint-hearted, but it attracted a meaty €22,000. Another notable sale at this auction was the €48,000 paid for Patrick Collins’ Sligo Landscape – well above its €20,000 to €30,000 estimate. Collins has been performing poorly at auction in recent times and this was his best price since 2007. It’s a reminder that interest in this most accomplished artist hasn’t gone away. In addition to Mary Swanzy, Irish female artists generally did well in 2019. There was a world record price (€110,000) paid for the The Land Eire by Mainie Jellett at the O’Malley sale in Whyte’s, and May Guinness’s Woman with Red Hair exceeded its pre-sale guide of €6,000-€8,000 with a hammer price of €34,000 – another auction record for that artist.
There were a few unfamiliar figures amongst the top selling artists. Gabriel Hayes is not a name that trips from the tongue of the average art lover and her paintings very rarely come on the market. Only three of her works have appeared at auction over the years. Yet most of us have actually handled her work without knowing it. She designed the original Irish decimal currency in 1971, taking inspiration from the Book of Kells. She’s best known as a sculptor and a bas relief by her can be seen on the façade of the building that houses the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht on Kildare Street. Her painting The Cork Bowler was sold for £65,000 at Sotheby’s – more than twice the lower end of its guide price. Stanhope Alexander Forbes, another less well-known figure had two paintings in the top ten best sellers. The Bridge sold for £75,000 and The Smith’s Workshop for £30,000 – both at Bonhams. Although born in Dublin in 1857, Forbes Irish connections are at best tenuous. His father was English and his mother French and he moved to London when he was a child. He returned briefly as an adult and he painted some landscapes around Galway but his primary affiliations were with Cornwall and he’s referred to as the father of the Newlyn school of painting.
There are very few appearances by living artists amongst the top selling works at any of the auction houses. A notable exception is Dublin sculptor Rowan Gillespie who achieved two of his three best ever results in 2019. His Failing Better went for €64,173 at Sotheby’s in November and Portrait of a Dreamer yielded €67,500 at de Vere’s in June. Sotheby’s November auction also yielded a record price for Hughie O’Donoghue. The Owl Run, A beautifully composed, bird’s eye perspective of a nocturnal landscape sold for €87,500 – more than three times its upper guide price. It was painted in 2013 and bought that year from the Marlborough Gallery in London. The only other living artist to appear in the upper ranks was John Shinnors, whose Loop Head – Still morning, Windy Evening sold for €34,000 at Morgan O’Driscoll in October. This is still some way short of Shinnor’s best price of €70,000 achieved in 2008.
There is no doubt that the trend in 2019, notwithstanding the gloomy prognostications about Brexit, was upwards. However, expectations should be constrained as 2019 may prove to be something of an outlier because of the very high quality of a number of the collections that came under the hammer. Mild optimism is the furthest I’d venture.
John P O’Sullivan
Irish Top 10
Whyte’s in association with Christie’s Jack Butler Yeats Reverie 25.11.2019 €1,400,000
Whyte’s in association with Christie’s Jack Butler Yeats Evening in Spring 25.11.2019 €1,300,000
Whyte’s in association with Christie’s Jack Butler Yeats The Enfolding Night 25.11.2019 €520,000
Whyte’s in association with Christie’s Jack Butler Yeats Death for Only One 25.11.2019 €470,000
Whyte’s in association with Christie’s Jack Butler Yeats The Fighting Dawn 25.11.2019 €320,000
Whyte’s Louis le Brocquy Image of Samuel Beckett 16.09.2019 €210,000
Morgan O’ Driscoll Paul Henry Evening in Achill 29.04.2019 € 185,000
De Veres Jack Butler Yeats Tralee 26.03.2019 €180,000
Morgan O’ Driscoll Jack Butler Yeats The Derelict Ship 21.10.2019 € 175,000
Adam’s William Scott Red and Red (WS119) 04.12.2019 €150,000
Overall Top UK Results
Whyte’s in association with Christies Jack Butler Yeats Reverie 25.11.2019 €1,400,000
Whyte’s in association with Christies Jack Butler Yeats, Evening in Spring 25.11.2019 €1,300,000
Sotheby’s Jack Butler Yeats A Paris of the West/A Paris come to Judgement in the West 19.11.2019 £550,000
Whyte’s in association with Christies Jack Butler Yeats The Enfolding Night 25.11.2019 €520,000
Whyte’s in association with Christies Jack Butler Yeats Death for only one 25.11.2019 €470,000
Whyte’s in association with Christies Jack Butler Yeats The Fighting Dawn 25.11.2019 €320,000
Christies Roderic O’Conor Breton Boy in Profile 17.06.2019 £340,000
Sotheby’s Jack Butler Yeats The Man in the Moon has Patience 19.11.2019 £260,000
Sotheby’s William Scott White with Black Predominating 19.11.2019 £220,000
Sothebys Jack Butler Yeats The Stevedore 19.11.2019 £180,000